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Featured Release Roundup: November 19, 2020

Smarts: Who Needs Smarts Anyway? 12” (Feel It) Smarts is a new Melbourne band featuring a bunch of familiar faces from other bands, and while their sound isn’t miles away from some of other bands (particularly Ausmuteants, whose singer / keyboardist Jake Roberts plays drums here), there’s something fresh and exciting about them. The label’s description drops the term “egg punk”—which, in 2020, is somewhere between a backhanded compliment and outright insult—but the tag makes sense given that Smarts’ angular rhythms, high-pitched vocals, and quirky sensibility sound like the Coneheads. However, the reference point I keep coming back to is Freedom of Choice era Devo, because that quirkiness and angularity is subservient to a great pop sensibility. Basically, these are great songs played fast and quirky. But that’s not the complete story with Smarts. There’s also the unique instrumentation, the way the saxophone, synth, guitar, and bass work together. The sax playing isn’t skronky or jazzy, but locked in with the guitar licks, doubling the same angular melodic lines. The way those instruments work together sounds natural, but also like nothing else I’ve heard before. I feel like my description isn’t coming together as well as Smarts’ music, which melds these disparate qualities into a seamless and original whole.

Vex: Sanctuary 12” (Bomb-All Records) This is a reissue of the 1984 12” EP by this London band. Even if you’re not a deep anarcho punk head, you might recognize the band’s name or this release because Sacred Bones did their own reissue of Sanctuary a few years back. Sacred Bones’ version (which is out of print and sells for collector prices) added a few compilation tracks (and hence had the title Sanctuary (The Complete Discography)), but this version from Bomb-All is a straight reissue of the original 4-song 12”. While Vex gets described as an anarcho band, Killing Joke is the clearest influence on their sound. In fact, their song “It’s No Crime” bears more than a passing resemblance to Killing Joke’s “The Wait.” Whereas Amebix took Killing Joke’s mechanistic post-punk and made it heavier and meaner, Vex play things straight on Sanctuary, and if you’re a fan of Killing Joke’s first couple of records, it’s pretty certain you’ll like this EP. If you’re also a fan of the grittier sounds coming out of the underground at that same time, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll flip out over this record.

Patois Counselors: The Optimal Seat 12” (Ever/Never Records) Charlotte North Carolina’s Patois Counselors, one of the most buzzed-about bands in our state’s underground, are back with a second album! To paraphrase an apt quotation, this time around things are the same, but different. I remember my description of their first album on Ever/Never was one of the most out-there descriptions I’ve written for Sorry State. At the time I was reading this book that Gilles Deleuze wrote about the painter Francis Bacon (thanks Danny!), and Deleuze’s analysis of Bacon’s approach to painting reminded me of the ornate density of Patois Counselors’ music. That sensibility carries through to The Optimal Seat; like Proper Release, The Optimal Seat is musically and lyrically dense. I’m glad that Patois Counselors has found a home on Ever/Never Records, because that label specializes in music that exercises your brain muscles. As for what’s different, despite the density—or maybe complexity is a better word—there’s something that feels more elegant and confident about The Optimal Seat, like the band knows who they are and are leaning way into it. Even after just a week of listening, I’m confident this is a record that will share more of its rewards with you the longer it sits on your turntable. The Optimal Seat may be loud and bombastic like punk, but it expects more of you as a listener than most any other record you’d apply that term to.

Deseos Primitivos: S/T 12” (Going Underground) After a demo and a 7”, Going Underground Records brings us the debut LP from this California punk band. Deseos Primitivos’s sound is fast and tough, but also sophisticated and melodic. They sound like a California punk band through and through, from their surf-infected guitar licks to their anthemic choruses and great songcraft to the bubbly bass to the cool confidence of their playing. The production is lean and direct (I don’t even think the guitar is double-tracked), and if their songs were bad, there would be nowhere to hide… thankfully they are killer. I can name a ton of bands this record reminds me of—the Adolescents, the Avengers, the Brat, the Bags—but Deseos Primitivos isn’t trying to sound like those bands. They’re just playing no-frills, classic-sounding punk songs that all but force you to pogo and sing along.

Molchat Doma: Monument 12” (Sacred Bones) I imagine most people know the broad contours of Molchat Doma’s backstory by now, but in case you don’t, here’s the quick version. In 2018, their second album, Etazhi, blew up on YouTube, going viral and getting millions of plays, catapulting this group from Belarus to international renown. If you used YouTube to listen to any minimal synth or darkwave in 2018 or 2019, there’s a good chance YouTube played a Molchat Doma track when your video finished. I think our friend Carly—who did a month-long fill-in stint at Sorry State—was the first person to play Molchat Doma for me, and I liked it so much I ordered 30 copies of the LP from their German label, Detriti Records. They sold out immediately. I knew punks were talking about this band, but when I saw someone I didn’t know wearing their t-shirt at a goth night in Raleigh, I knew their reach was wider. Next thing I know they’re signed to Sacred Bones and planning a US tour, which they had to cancel because of COVID. Now Sacred Bones has released their follow-up album to sky-high expectations. I liked Etazhi, and I tried to approach Monument with as little baggage or expectation as possible. After listening to it 4 or 5 times, I think it’s awesome. The record starts with a track that sounds like Etazhi, and while the song was good, it worried me this would be a retread. However, Monument is a clear progression. The synth-heavy tracks lean more on the rhythmic pulses of dance music, reminding me of Boy Harsher. But at least half of the album doesn’t have this sound at all, instead using guitar as the main melodic instrument and highlighting melancholy vocal melodies. These songs sound like the Smiths, particularly tracks like “Still Ill” and “Hand in Glove” that are propulsive yet dark and melodic. Not only is Molchat Doma great at this style but also it serves as a great counterpoint to the more dance-oriented tracks while sounding natural alongside them. And, in case you thought they were going to sound too clean or pro, everything is still bathed in the same warm tape saturation as Etazhi. As a fan, you want a follow-up album to build upon the things you loved about the previous record without abandoning its strengths, and that’s what Molchat Doma has done with Monument.

Portray Heads: S/T 12” (Bitter Lake) While Bitter Lake has released a couple of punk records, this awesome compilation from Portray Heads returns to the label’s original focus on the Japanese electronic / post-punk underground. It’s also telling that this is a split label release with Minimal Wave, into whose discography this also fits very well. While they made these recordings in 1985 and 1986, it sounds like Portray Heads was experimenting with the same kinds of gadgets that groups like the Human League, D.A.F., Grauzone, and New Order were using a few years earlier. There are a few things that separate Portray Heads from the pack, though. The first is that their songs tend to be upbeat and fast-tempo, which along with the gritty sound, gives them a punkiness many synth groups lack. The second is the group’s unique sense of melody. It sounds like they use a lot of middle eastern scales, and if you have a taste for “Eastern” sounding new wave (like that killer Yugoslavian post-punk mix we carried a few weeks ago) or even Anatolian rock, give this a listen. I’ve liked everything Bitter Lake has released so far, but this one is noteworthy. Highly recommended.

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